Celebrated chess grandmaster makes his move — to St. Louis

ST. LOUIS • In a scene reminiscent of a free-agent signing ceremony, one of the world’s top chess players stood amid a small crowd at the St. Louis Chess Club, a few feet from where his performance last year left commentators searching for superlatives.

But instead of outmaneuvering opponents, Fabiano Caruana was shaking hands with local dignitaries and making small talk over cocktails.

A spoon clinking against crystal interrupted the chatter.

The announcement — that Caruana, the world’s No. 5 player, is moving to St. Louis — seemed almost inevitable in light of the 23-year-old’s declaration in May that he was switching allegiances from the Italian to the U.S. Chess Federation.

The Miami-born Caruana’s transfer gives the American team its first real shot in decades at winning a gold medal at the World Chess Olympiad, and has prompted claims that multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, the nation’s most prominent patron of chess, is buying foreign players.

At a reception last month, a few dozen people gathered in the Central West End at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis to welcome Caruana, the newest addition to the city’s acclaimed chess scene.

Last year, at the Sinquefield Cup — named after the retired businessman — Caruana delivered arguably the greatest performance in chess history, winning seven matches in a row against the highest-rated players.

The annual tournament, which begins on Sunday, is now part of the Grand Chess Tour, and includes stints in Norway and London.

Caruana’s commanding 2014 victory helped propel him to the No. 2 spot in the world behind Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and set off months of speculation about his homecoming — and money being offered for him to return.

The conjecture smacked of Cold War intrigue, with a wealthy American wooing players in an attempt to best the Russians and Chinese.

“That’s right,” quipped Jon Stewart, former host of “The Daily Show,” this past spring. “The United States is buying up nerds, nerd mercenaries.”

Sinquefield denies such assertions. Caruana has declined to discuss specifics of his agreement with the Chess Club. But in an email last week, Adolivio Capece, press officer for the Italian Chess Federation, described a meeting in Rome in December with Caruana and his parents while a bidding war was underway.

According to Capece, Caruana was offered 200,000 euros — about $227,000, in today’s currency rates — a year by the Americans, while Italy was only willing to put up 100,000 euros. The former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, a small oil-rich nation on the Caspian Sea north of Iran, had bid as much as 400,000 euros, Capece said, but that offer seemed less certain than the others.

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